With the release of Four Questions, his sublimely tuneful, richly improvisational and adventurously incendiary collection with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, four-time Grammy winning pianist/composer launches his third decade as a recording artist sharing a number of “firsts.”
On a purely creative level, starting with his vibrant, polyrhythmic, multi-mood swinging horn extravaganza “Baby Jack” (a piece commissioned in 2012) and continuing with the ballad turned whimsical and booming Latin jazz fusion jam “Jazz Twins,” it’s his only project to date featuring all-original compositions. More impactfully, in the spirit of legendary jazz predecessors Billie Holiday, Max Roach, John Coltrane and Nina Simone, it reflects the pianist’s ever-evolving passion for understanding the idiom’s “sacred obligation” to speak truth to power during eras of sociopolitical horror.
Four Questions is the often eloquent and lyrical but frequently percussive, boisterous and wildly chaotic musical response to MLK’s quote: “There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal. Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that truly matter.” The emotional and spiritual centerpiece of the often (by design) disturbing but ultimately transcendent and inspiring collection is the 16-minute title track, which O’Farrill and the 18-piece orchestra premiered as the Cornel West Concerto at the Apollo Theatre in May 2016. Dr. West, a prominent author, philosopher and one of the United States’ most powerful political activists, was guest soloist, conductor and percussionist.
The explosive spoken word element of the work takes the shape of West’s 2014 speech at Town Hall in Seattle, which was based on his book Black Prophetic Fire. It expounds upon the four questions famed 19th and 20th Century civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois poses in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. Its provocative themes include “What does integrity do in the face of adversity/oppression?” and “What does honesty do in the face of lies/deception?”
As we listen to the fusing of speech and music, we better understand why O’Farrill compares West’s stunning oratory to the works of jazz greats like Coltrane, Mongo Santamaria, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.
The other key element to this groundbreaking, transformational recording is O’Farrill’s four-part, intimacy and cacophony and choir-inflected suite “A Still Small Voice” – an emphatic symphonic piece written in response to the great financial crisis of 2008 which intends to remind us that there’s a common thread to all religions and philosophies: that still small voice some call “conscience,” and the more spiritually inclined refer to as “divine guidance.” More than any of his previous recordings, O’Farrill’s voice – and that of Dr. West – resonate and echo in those places where we all need a great awakening.